Dr. Toon: Two Films, Two Concerts
Underground comix artist Robert Crumb created a horny, nihilistic cat named Fritz. The comic came to the attention of Ralph Bakshi in 1969, who saw possibilities in the character. Bakshi pitched Fritz as potential project to animation producer Steve Krantz. After production problems that moved the film from New York to California and more difficulties in finding a distributor, Fritz the Cat finally premiered in April of 1972. Fritz was a disturbing and cynical film; where Pepperland was a bright haven of peace and beauty, Bakshi’s America was a hideous mélange of racial stereotypes, grimy factories, offensive billboards featuring spouting toilets and cows vomiting up their own milk. Urban grime and decay were prominent themes, and there is rarely a break from it.
The film, like the Altamont concert, is deeply flawed and contradictory in its construction and execution, and Fritz proves to be the most inconsistent character in the film. Violent scenes, such as the beating and rape of one character, echo the concert’s brutality. Perhaps not coincidentally, a major villain in the film is an outlaw biker. Mick Jagger and crew would have been more at home with the crude sexuality of Fritz than the Beatles; all is lust and little has to do with love. Ironically, a black man (or crow, as Bakshi would have it), is also senselessly murdered in the movie trying to protect Fritz.
The films had another interesting parallel as light-and-dark siblings. When the Beatles saw Yellow Submarine late in production, they were so enchanted that they insisted on filming a live action coda featuring themselves. When Robert Crumb saw Fritz the Cat, he was so disgusted that he battled (unsuccessfully) to have his name removed from the film.
Not long after Woodstock, the Beatles disbanded. After Altamont, Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden quit the band in disillusionment. The Rolling Stones exorcised Sympathy for the Devil from their live sets until 1975.
Ralph Bakshi would go on to make controversial statements about race and society for several more animated films, and no one touched nerves in the same way until Spike Lee came on to the scene. George Dunning died in 1979 while producing an animated version of a Shakespeare play, The Tempest. The surviving work recalls the visual look of Yellow Submarine.
In retrospect, Yellow Submarine was the better film, technically superior to Fritz the Cat, far more arresting in its story, visuals, and music. Whether it was superior in spirit depends on which view of the era one takes; the ugly truths and sour malaise depicted in the latter film are perhaps more realistic than chants of “All You Need is Love”. The most salient thing to consider is that, once again, animation responded to the prevailing times and moods by producing two films, each one corresponding to shifts in the cultural stratum. They also correlated with two events, both rock concerts, that bookended the rise and fall of the counterculture in America. Yellow Submarine and Woodstock. Altamont and Fritz the Cat. Rarely have two features – or two concerts -- portrayed so well the symbols of disparate eras.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.